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Playoff demons behind them, Nationals face new challenge in surging Cardinals

The St. Louis Cardinals are a very different team than the now-defeated Los Angeles Dodgers, forcing the Washington Nationals to take a different approach in the NLCS.

MLB: NLCS-Workouts Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Nationals have won a playoff series.

The heartbreak, the disaster, the near misses. Drew Storen’s meltdown. Clayton Kershaw’s save. Matt Wieters’ failed pickoff attempt. All the letdowns that had made a postseason series so elusive for this franchise sailed over the center field wall at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday night, crashing into a railing and falling out of view as Howie Kendrick hit an extra-inning grand slam that would give his team a lead it’d never relinquish.

It’s been a little more than 24 hours since the beast was slayed, since the curse was lifted, since the hump was conquered. The Los Angeles Dodgers weren’t just a 106-win juggernaut standing in the way of the Nationals’ World Series hopes. They represented a hurdle this franchise has desperately fought to overcome time and time again, only to come up just short so many times.

Not only were the Dodgers a foe who’d knocked them out before, they threatened to do so again when they carried a 3-1 lead into the eighth in Game 5. Hell, if the wind had been blowing a little bit harder out to right field that night, Dodgers fans would be heralding rookie catcher Will Smith as a postseason hero. But the Nationals prevailed, and in doing so put to rest a narrative that’s since made way for a new one: Just how far can this team go?

The first step toward answering that question lies in St. Louis, where a scrappy Cardinals team awaits the Nats for the start of the National League Championship Series. After it took Washington five tries just to get to this point, some fans may be content with the team having reached this point. But judging by the character this Nationals clubhouse has shown all season long, the players are far from satisfied.

If the Nationals are going to dismantle the Cardinals in a best-of-seven series, their biggest priority will be handling their two best hitters: Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna. The pair of trade acquisitions combined to hit .429 in their NLDS series with the Atlanta Braves, smacking all four of the team’s home runs. The rest of the club went just 26-for-133 (.195) in the series, so limiting one or both Goldschmidt and Ozuna will go a long way toward throwing zeros up on the scoreboard.

As a team, the Cardinals don’t hit for a lot of power (their 210 regular season home runs were the fourth-fewest in the NL), but can be a dangerous threat on the basepaths (their 116 stolen bases tied the Nats for the most in the NL).

St. Louis curiously only stole one base all NLDS, but that likely won’t be the case in this series after Kurt Suzuki—who’s expected to play in Game 1 despite exiting Wednesday’s game after being hit in the wrist and head by a pitch—allowed Cody Bellinger to steal three bases and was clearly hampered in his ability to throw across the diamond due to an elbow injury that sidelined him for most of September. It will be worth keeping an eye on Ozuna, Kolten Wong, Tommy Edman and Harrison Bader to see if they try their luck against him.

In the rotation, Game 3 starter Jack Flaherty gets all the hype—as he should after he posted a 0.91 ERA in his final 15 starts after the All-Star Break. But all four starters were lights out against Atlanta, accruing a combined 1.78 ERA while averaging just over six innings per start.

Barring any unforeseen changes, the teams will line up Miles Mikolas and Anibal Sanchez for Game 1, Adam Wainwright and Max Scherzer in Game 2, Flaherty and Stephen Strasburg in Game 3 and Dakota Hudson and Patrick Corbin for Game 4.

The Nats’ starters—who combined for the most fWAR in the majors this season at 21.4—will certainly be favored to win each of those matchups, but the series will likely swing in the favor of the team who wins Games 2 and 3 when the four aces (spoken generously in reference to Wainwright) of this series take the mound.

Washington should have the edge when it comes to starting pitching, but the pressure will be on the Nats to score before the Cardinals hand things off to the bullpen. Closer Carlos Martinez blew Games 1 and 3 of the NLDS behind disastrous ninth-inning appearances, but the other relievers in front of him combined to allow just one run over 10.1 innings.

As for manager Mike Shildt, he’s similar to Davey Martinez in a lot of ways. Both skippers rely on analytics but aren’t irrevocably attached to them, meaning they’ll go with their gut in tight situations more often than not. They also both maintain strong clubhouse cultures, having formed good relationships through open communication with their players.

The Nationals got over the hump, but there’s certainly unfinished business that lies ahead. It’s poetic, really, that this team could take down two former clubs that knocked it out of the playoffs on its way to winning the NL pennant.

But if the Nationals are Achilles, the noble warrior fighting for a just cause, and the Dodgers were Hector, heralded as the greatest fighter in the world before Achilles defeated him, then the Cardinals are looking to play the role of Paris, who wasn’t ever going to win a slugfest but killed Achilles by piercing an arrow through his heel.

Perhaps the Nationals will rewrite the Iliad, protecting that heel long enough to see the battle through to the very end. But they’re not fighting Hector anymore, and will have to change their approach if they’re going to want to stop Paris’s arrow.